The word dooryard is well known to me as a lexical item, but I had no idea what exactly it meant; as ktschwarz said in this Wordorigins thread, “like probably most Americans outside New England, I associate it mainly with Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’.” Fortunately, in the same thread cuchuflete linked to this 2017 FB post from the Bangor Maine Police Department:

The term “dooryard” has such a simple and clear meaning to me that I had no idea the phrase could be so misunderstood. Door + Yard = Dooryard. A concise term, crafted over time by our ancestors. I even received a few notes that hinted of frustration in my use of the term without a definition attached. I feel wicked bad. So stinkin’ bad – that I now have to write an entirely separate post to clear up the confusion.

Dooryard (sometimes pronounced Doah-Yahd – don’t do this) simply means the area of yard adjacent to the most commonly used door exiting the home where you are currently dwelling. It could be the front door, it could be the side door, and it might even be the back door. It also could be the yard(s) located by each and every door in your home. You make the determination of where the “dooryard” is at your home, and if your uncle Mervin stops by, he might only consider the dooryard to be the area near the side door.

The best indicator of the area of which the person speaks would be to pay attention to the movement of their head or shoulders when they use the term. Pointing is too obvious. If the person is indicating the dooryard near the side of the house, he or she might glance in that general direction. You will know, but only if you pay attention.

When you arrive at a home in Maine (and I have arrived at many in many different towns during my time as an investigator) you need to look for door with the most worn path in the grass or mud.

Just because there are pavers or crushed rock leading to a door does not mean that it is the clear choice in entry and exit for the homeowners. You must find the dooryard. Screw it up, and you will not be welcomed. […] Whatever you do, do not try to pronounce “dooryard” like Tom Bosley did in “Murder She Wrote.” Do not try to use a Maine accent if you do not have a Maine accent. It actually can get you into trouble. Actually, don’t even try to use the term “dooryard” unless you know where it is. If you use the term regularly, you understand. If you don’t, that’s cool as well. […]

The OED (in a 1897 entry) defines it as “A yard or garden-patch about the door of a house” and gives the following citations:

c1764 in T. D. Woolsey Hist. Disc. (1850) 54 The Freshmen ..are forbidden to wear their the front door~yard of the President’s or Professor’s house.
1854 J. R. Lowell Cambr. 30 Years Ago in Prose Wks. (1890) I. 59 The flowers which decked his little door-yard.
1878 Emerson in N. Amer. Rev. CXXVI. 412 We send to England for shrubs, which grow as well in our own door~yards and cow-pastures.
1913 R. Frost Boy’s Will 9 How drifts are piled, Dooryard and road ungraded.
1941 T. S. Eliot Dry Salvages i. 7 The rank ailanthus of the April dooryard.

The Dictionary of American Regional English labels it “chiefly NEng, NY” (and Whitman, of course, was from NY). We previously discussed the word in 2018. And in connection with the last citation, I will remind people that in that title Salvages has penultimate stress and “long a” (or, as Eliot annoyingly puts it, “Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages” — why not use wages as the rhyming word rather than one nobody knows how to pronounce?).


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The Dry Salvages is the reason I know the word; I remember some annotator pointing out that its Americanness is in keeping with Eliot getting all reminiscent about his childhood at that point.

    I’ve never been sold on Eliot’s proposed etymology of “Dry Salvages.” Does anybody Actually Know?

    This one is plainly a red herring (even supposing that the archipelago is actually called called “Dry Salvages” by anyone at all, as WP claims):

  2. James Parker makes a similar point about “assuages” in a Globe article from 2012: . But “assuages” has the advantage of having the same full syllabic stress pattern as “assuages”, which the other proposed rhymes don’t.

    Perhaps TSE was subliminally attracted by some kind of semantic echo of “salve” as well…

  3. на дворе трава на траве дрова а в дровах дыра.

    двередвор? quoth the raven:

  4. “dveredvor” would be the literal translation to Russian.

    “na dvore trava na trave drova a v drovah dyra” is a Russian tongue twister.

    “quoth the raven:” is a quotation.

  5. I associate dooryard from Eliot too. The dooryard flowers and the discussion of his etymology for Dry Salvages brought to mind his pronunciation of clematis in Burnt Norton, which in his readings he makes sound like calamitous. I’ve always imagined he preferred the UK pronunciation both for that association and for the extra syllable but it may well be that was the American pronunciation at the time as well.

  6. That’s the pronunciation I use too (initial stress); I don’t know whether I got it from dictionaries or from reading Eliot. It certainly sounds more elegant to me.

  7. The Latin equivalent of dooryard is forum.

  8. Graham Asher says

    Dooryard is a completely foreign and unknown word to me, and I believe to nearly all English people. Sounds as if it means something like ‘front garden’.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    I suppose Kusaal saman “open space in front of a compound” (i.e. in front of the zɔŋ “entrance hut”) expresses much the same thing.

    The traditional Kusaasi New Year festival is called Samanpier “Dooryard-Cleaning.”

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    The word was apparently in older times not limited to New England/N.Y. E.g., from the 1897 Transactions of the Illinois State Horticultural Society: “I used to wish God would send a mighty angel with trumpet , sounding through Ogle county , Clear up your back door yard ! clear up your back door yard ! ‘” To be fair, Ogle County was one of the parts of rural Illinois founded by settlers from New England which for quite a long time had noticeable cultural/political differences from other parts of rural Illinois whose settlers had come from other places. Late 19th-century publications of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society and the Ohio State Board of Agriculture also use the word.

  11. “quoth the raven:” is a quotation.
    A quothation, so to speak.

  12. In my experience houses in New England – even modest ones – have side doors. They open into the mud room, a small foyer where you hang up your cap, jacket and gloves and take off your wet, muddy boots before you go into the kitchen. Keep in mind that New England has five seasons – fall, winter, mud season, spring, and summer.
    The side door is the most used door. The front door is for visitors, the back door is for the cat, and the side door is for the family.
    The dooryard is outside the side door. There’s a front yard, a back yard, and a dooryard.

  13. I recall Lloyd Alexander (1924–2007) using the word dooryard in The Chronicles of Prydain. It appears six times in Taran Wanderer, for example:

    Built against the side of a high mound, half-hidden by sod and branches, it seemed in even greater disrepair than Taran had remembered. The thatched roof, like a huge bird’s nest, straggled down to block the narrow windows; a spider web of mold covered the walls, which looked ready to tumble at any moment. In the crooked doorway stood Orddu herself.

    Heart pounding, Taran swung from the saddle. Holding his head high, in a silence broken only by the chattering of Gurgi’s teeth, he strode slowly across the dooryard. Orddu was watching him with sharp, black eyes. If she was surprised, the enchantress gave no sign other than to bend forward a little and peer more closely at Taran. Her shapeless robe flapped about her knees; the jeweled clasps and pins glittered in her weedy tangle of disheveled hair as she nodded her head rapidly and with evident satisfaction.

    Alexander lived essentially his whole life (except for his time in Europe, during and after the Second World War) in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I don’t think dooryard is common today (although things might conceivably have been different in Alexander’s youth). Seeing the word crop up not infrequently in his novels, I probably took it for a deliberate Welsh-ism (as opposed to an uncommon word that Alexander happened to like). I suppose this hypothesis could be tested, just based on Alexander’s work, by making a comparison with Alexander’s other relatively early novels, such as The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, which has a similarly rural setting to The Chronicles of Prydain—but one clearly inspired by the Middle East, rather than a fantasy version of Wales.

  14. Heart pounding, Taran swung from the saddle. Holding his head high, in a silence broken only by the chattering of Gurgi’s teeth, he strode slowly across the dooryard. Orddu was watching him with sharp, black eyes.

    I’m afraid I was irresistibly reminded of The Eye of Argon (Gurgi is, after all, very close to Grignr).

  15. saman “open space in front of a compound”

    Reminds me of words formed with the -usta suffix in Finnish:

    -usta (front vowel harmony variant -ystä)
    Forms nouns, mostly used for things located in a certain place.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Heart pounding, […] Holding his head high

    I see what he did there.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    I understand the distinction Bloix is drawing (for some architectural styles) between “door visitors generally use” and “door household members generally use,”* but am intrigued by the implication from the Bangor police block quote that it may be the custom of Maine law enforcement personnel to knock on the latter rather than the former when conducting investigations.

    *My maternal grandparents’ house in upstate New York sort of had that distinction, with family generally using the side door that went directly into the kitchen rather than the front door that went via a vestibule into the living room. But the area by that side door was not called a dooryard that I recall, perhaps largely because it was not a “yard” at all but by the time I was born, at least, was a concrete-and-flagstone patio and then later in my childhood had a roof put over it and became a porch.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    I am inferring from your post that there are three areas: (1) the dooryard, where business is transacted with visitors who do not come into the house, and family members are handed hot drinks and snacks before returning to work (or play????) from a short break, (2) the mud room, where outer shoes and clothing are left, and (3) the house proper. I suppose the dooryard can be converted to a roofed/(semi) walled-in porch, whereby the mud room may lose its function and can be repurposed.

  19. mud room = сени

  20. Terry K. says

    The term dooryard does make a lot more sense when imagining a house with an outer side door that opens to more than a driveway and the property line. Sounds like the door functions similar to the door to the garage, for those of us with attached garages.

  21. At least in Northern Germany, it is usual for free standing houses to have a front door towards the street, and a side door towards the driveway and whatever path leads into the back garden. The front door is mostly used by strangers or by people on official business, while the side door is used by family, friends, and neighbours that know the owners well. In some parts of Northern Germany, the front door was used even less – I heard that in the Altes Land near Hamburg, the front door of the traditional farm houses was only used to let in the bride on the day of her wedding, and to carry out inhabitants after their death.

  22. I’m not sure of the practical use of the word “dooryard”, at least in modern American English. I’ve lived in Chicago, St Louis, Colorado, Michigan, and Indiana, and I’ve never come across anyone ever using the term, except in poetry such as Eliot and Whitman. “Front yard”, “backyard”, and “side yard” are more useful and easier semantically. Of course, if one really does want to talk about “dooryards” generically, certainly, but I’ve yet to need the word. But then, I’ve never lived in New England!

  23. Dooryard – I’ve just learned a new word.

  24. Now I’m thinking of areaway, a word for a familiar concept (the narrow space between houses in a city), which I’ve never heard nor seen except in earlier 20th century books (Runyon, Thurber).

    P.S. the OED says, also, “a sunken court giving access to the basement of a house”.

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